I first encountered Casey Thompson’s work in August at EatDrink SF. At this annual bacchanal of San Francisco’s finest food and drink, Ms. Thompson showcased her inimitable crab macarons. It made my list of top three tastes of the event.
Aveline, chef Thompson’s Union Square restaurant, is at the heart of the Warwick Hotel. Outside is cacophony, cabs swerving, buses honking, music blaring from nearby honky-tonks. In the few moments it takes to get from the curb through Aveline’s door, transition your brain from boisterous to quiet, for once inside, everything is restrained. Dark grey floors and fixtures set a muted tone. One neutral colored wall is anchored by a floor-to-ceiling wine refrigerator (opened with frequency during our meal). Tables are placed more than an arm’s length apart, ensuring a degree of privacy and reinforcing the cocoon effect. From unadorned pine tables and simple table furnishings to linear light fixtures, each object seems designed to cast attention away from the room and towards the plate.
There, in dish after dish, an exuberance of colors, ideas and flavors awaited. Up first, avocado with marinated leek, pink peppercorn and crumpet ($15). As though the dish were braided together, scoops of avocado were tucked amongst triangles of crumpet and angular slices of watermelon radish, the whole dusted pink with ground peppercorns. Beautiful. Restrained. Albacore ($19) too, was visually arresting. Served on a black plate, ovals of pale tuna glowed pearlescent against purplish slices of plum, dots of pickled tapioca and crisp sprigs of mustard greens. Beautiful. Restrained. Thompson brought new energy to the tomato by serving three varietals, each in its own way, raw, dried and candied. Beautiful, restrained and a retro-innovative approach to serve a fruit we all take for granted.
By the time the macarons arrived at the table, in a baker’s box tied with familiar red and white-twined string, I knew what to expect from Aveline: modernist platings, re-imagined seasonal ingredients and the use of seasoning to enhance – not overwhelm- the ingredient’s inherent flavor.
And then there was the yolk beignet ($25). The name tells you most of what you need to know: yolk (fat from egg), beignet (fat from butter), Wagyu (high-end, beef well-marbled with fat), lardo (pork fat) and trotter sauce (gelatin plus fat). The idea of this dish scared me into ordering it – how could you not? – and the reality did not disappoint. Draped in lardo, the beignet glistened in its dark sauce. Slice into it and the barely set yolk oozed out. One bite of this impossibly rich dish was not near enough, the fats uniting in a decadent beat that was perfectly in synch.
Entrees fall into both camps. American Wagyu ($36) was served in three sizeable pieces, its attendant mushrooms a double-hit of umami beneath the rich meat. Its skin crisped and perched atop the flesh like a sail above a raft, sea bass ($32) was delicate and beautifully fresh; its jumble of mushrooms and walnuts brought the ship to shore. The main course that grabbed the attention of the table was fried chicken ($26). These days, every respectable San Francisco chef has a fried chicken dish on their menu but the memorable versions are few and far between. Thompson’s boasts impossibly juicy flesh and a skin so crisp, it could only come from a southerner reared in the art of frying. Add in a warm heat from red pepper and a finishing pop of vinegared heat from dehydrated kimchi and the dish jumps into the realm of California Cuisine and into realm of the remarkable. Yes, it is restrained, and in its restraint is its beauty.
Do not skip the palate refreshers. The small menu (two items) is clipped to the main menu and, at $6 each, these intermezzos offer an affordable opportunity to experience additional fun. Palate reset 1 was a scoop of parsley sorbet that, as it melted over slivers of fig and plum, added freshness and a surprising depth to the fruit. Palate reset 2, or lemon meringue and cucumber granite, was a dish of gnomic proportion. Imagine if you will, that the browned curl on top of the meringue is the chimney of a fairy house and the tiny pearls of green granite are a garden. It was a bit of whimsy amidst the discipline, a refresher for mind and palate.
The one fail of the evening was the dessert. Batter ($13) was served in the bowl in which it was prepared, large, red and better left in the kitchen. And though the menu tells you “we will even let you lick the spoon,” the arrival of the big bowl with a big wooden spoon sticking out of it was incongruous to the meal recently completed. Too, the heavy feel of the literal lump of dark chocolate, cashews and hazelnuts was a total mismatch and ended the meal on too casual a note for such a refined and delicate experience.
At this food moment, when so many chefs are pushing chile into everything (Sriracha waffles, anyone?) in an attempt to aggrandize flavor and shock the palate into submission, Aveline takes the opposite approach. More is not always more but, if done with care and precision, flavor can be done with more subtlety, more expression and more excitement. It would be a mistake to call the food feminine. Instead, call it exceptional.